Obituaries: Mike Nesmith, quiet man of The Monkees and accidental trailblazer

Robert Michael Nesmith, musician, actor and producer. Born: 30 December 1942 in Houston, Texas. Died: 10 December 2021 in Carmel Valley, California, aged 78

Mike Nesmith at a June 1967 press conference in London. (Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mike Nesmith, the beanie hatted quiet man of The Monkees, was an accidental trailblazer from a family of accidental trailblazers. He came late to music making, only picking up a guitar in his early twenties. Yet in a matter of years he was a (somewhat ambivalent) pop star and TV celebrity, then an unsung country rock pioneer and then the man who invented MTV for the guys who invented MTV. Not bad, and maybe not surprising, for the son of an imprecise typist who created Tipp-Ex to cover her errors.

Nesmith never quite made a commercial killing from his almost clairvoyant creativity. While his own songs were hits for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Run DMC, Frankie Laine and Lynn Anderson, he struggled with fame in a fictional band whose best-loved tunes, including I’m a Believer, Last Train to Clarksville and Valleri, flowed from the pens of other writers.

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The Monkees’ TV show ran for two series from 1966-68 but acquired pop immortality through school holiday repeats. The band members – Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Nesmith – played fictionalised versions of themselves. Nesmith won the role after a reportedly nonchalant audition and even his alter ego seemed a little bewildered by his place in the band, sticking out in his dock worker-meets-beatnik chic next to the bohemian Tork, beach bum Dolenz and teenybopper Jones, who described Nesmith as “the fourth part of the jigsaw puzzle that never fit”.

Robert Michael Nesmith was the only child of Warren and Bette Nesmith, who divorced when he was four. Bette remarried and relocated to Dallas where, in her capacity as executive secretary at Texas Bank and Trust, she developed her own typewriter correction fluid. In 1979, a few months before her death, she sold her Liquid Paper Corporation to Gillette for $48 million. Her son and heir finally acquired financial freedom.

Rewind twenty years to find a teenage Nesmith dabbling in music and drama at school before enlisting in the US Air Force in 1960. Two years later he was honourably discharged at his own request, swapping mechanics for music. Cutting his teeth in touring folk, country and rock’n’roll bands, he moved to Los Angeles and fell in with the fertile singer/songwriter scene at the legendary Troubadour venue on the Sunset Strip.

A publishing and recording deal followed, yielding a handful of underperforming solo singles. With a shrug of the shoulders and a woolly hat on his head, Nesmith joined the queue of 437 hopefuls to audition for a part in a new TV show, inspired by The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, about a co-habiting pop band. The producers wanted Nesmith and his hat for their Prefab Four, The Monkees.

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Monkeemania ensued but Nesmith was quick to push back against the bubblegum material selected by the show’s musical director Don Kirshner and blow the whistle on the use of session musicians on the album recordings, harshly deriding More of the Monkees as “probably the worst record in the history of the world”.

Nesmith negotiated alongside his bandmates for greater control of their output and image. Their subsequent psychedelic film and soundtrack, Head, was a flop (though later lauded as a cult favourite). Still the piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit, he bought his way out of his contract three years early, forfeiting future royalties. There was some consolation when Linda Ronstadt launched her solo career with Nesmith’s deathless Different Drum – written prior to joining the Monkees but rejected by the show’s producers.

He struggled to gain a commercial foothold as a solo artist, although the three albums he recorded as Michael Nesmith and the First National Band have long been considered classics of the nascent country rock genre. The Second National Band duly followed (with Jose Feliciano on congas) but when this too ended in commercial failure, he turned to production, working on Bert Jansch’s 1974 album LA Turnaround.

His Pacific Arts production company, formed in 1974, pioneered the home video market, but collapsed in a dispute with PBS over licensing rights. When a federal jury eventually awarded Nesmith $47 million in 1999, he quipped, “it’s like catching your grandmother stealing your stereo – you’re glad to get your stereo back, but you’re sad to find out that Grandma’s a thief”.

The inadvertent innovation continued when Nesmith created a makeshift music video for his 1977 single Rio. Intrigued by the promotional possibilities of the embryonic format, he produced the PopClips music video show for cable TV channel Nickolodeon, then sold it to Time Warner, who used it as a template for MTV.

In a satisfying twist, MTV repeats of The Monkees introduced the group to a new audience in the Eighties, while the Nesmith-produced videos for Lionel Richie’s Hello and Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel received heavy rotation on the channel.

Nesmith’s involvement in the various Monkees reunions was sporadic and often confined to one-off appearances. However, he did rejoin his three amigos in 1996, marking the band’s 30th anniversary with the Justus album and accompanying TV special Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees, before contributing to the 50th anniversary album Good Times!

Jones passed away in 2012 and Tork in 2019. Latterly, Nesmith toured with Dolenz as the Mike and Micky Show. Following quadruple bypass surgery in 2018 and the pandemic shutdown of live music, he had made sufficient peace with the band’s legacy to embark on the Monkees Farewell Tour, which ended in Los Angeles less than a month before his death at home from heart failure.

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